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As published in the Canberra Times – 28.9.20, Independent Australia – 20.9.20, and Pearls and Irritations – 18.9.20

There is, or there should be, more to spying than high tech electronics. As we have seen high tech can get agencies into trouble; It can lead to dead ends and bear pits. We need to get back to basics, feet on the ground. Our high-tech security agencies are making a hash of our relationship with China.

There has been a lot of talk of spies and spying recently. The right is enthralled with the notion of spying. Just as boys and girls with leanings toward the right tend to join the armed forces so too do right leaning youngsters get recruited as spies.

A Spy is a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another country and individuals within it. Spies come in many shapes and forms. They can be full or part time, they can be sleepers, activated as needed, or members of professional or sporting associations and academics who report regularly or as required, or when they judge something is of interest to their minder. They might be journalists, but they shouldn’t be. Sometimes Diplomats are Spies, sometimes Spies use the cover of diplomacy to undertake their activities.

During a posting to South Africa, as Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy, I was spied on. I was followed and my phone tapped because I had contact with black South Africans including the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).

Many of the people I met with were under surveillance, including Steve Biko, the leader of the BCM, murdered by the police in September 1977. It subsequently emerged that the regime thought I was a spy.

Without having set out to do so I became conversant with the craft of spying. I knew the mood of the townships and sometimes plans which extended beyond them. When a British MI6 operative learnt of my activities in helping people cross the border, he organised visas for them from neighbouring British High Commissions.

During a posting to Saudi Arabia as First Secretary, my phone was tapped. An embassy based CIA agent told me that when an American company set up the Saudi telephone system the CIA bugged it. The Americans knew everything the Saudis were saying. Much as they did with the Collins Class submarines, they can be tracked worldwide. Don’t worry about the Chinese, big brother has got Australia well and truly covered with Pine Gap playing an important role.

In the course of a posting to Pakistan, after I had become a confidant and friend of the future Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, my phone was tapped and I was followed. Of course, developing a relationship with Benazir was a legitimate and proper undertaking for the diplomatic Counsellor at the Australian Embassy.

What was not quite so regular was for me to take photos of Russian soldiers, tanks, radio communications, trucks and bases in Kabul during three monthly visits from Islamabad in the period 1986 to 1988. I had been a national service tank gunner and radio operator. The Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in Canberra supplied a magnificent little camera with a hot shoe and lots of film. And they expressed themselves happy with the results.

Kabul was a city under siege from the Mujahideen. Fear does strange things. The only way I could go to sleep in our little house in Kabul was lying on my back so I could ‘see’ the rocket or mortar that came through the roof.

I met the Polish First Secretary at the airport flying from Delhi to Kabul. I made arrangements to call on him. He had a jumper on. Underneath the jumper was a ‘box’. We talked. He was cautious. I organised a lunch party at home. I invited our western as well as some of our East European friends and the Chinese but not the Russians.

I asked my Polish colleague what was the box under his jumper and he said it was a recording device, I said his technology was crap and he laughed. He wanted to talk. We established a rapport, I said anything he could pass on about the Russians would be good. He did, the Poles were fed up with the Russians. He arranged for me to meet with them.

The Chinese had good information about the Russians but the Chinese which they were happy to share with me. They understood the difficulties of a fly in flyout Australian diplomat and had me to dinner during my visits. Information and dinner were on the basis of the strong relationship established by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1972.

The British Embassy in Kabul was staffed by MI6, the US Embassy by CIA. The US Embassy in Islamabad was responsible for over 600 ‘aid workers’ based in Peshawar, Quetta and inside Afghanistan. They were involved in training and supplying the Mujahideen. A friend in Peshawar, who worked with MI6, was married to a Frenchman who took photographs inside Afghanistan, he was a spy. He was shot at the back door of his house in Peshawar with an AK47 by a person dressed as a Pathan.

His wife later married a man who had been through Sandhurst. He was MI6. He worked with the British SAS in their operations across the border in support of the brilliant Mujahideen leader, Maqsood. He was later killed in Russia when working as a ‘journalist’, widowing his wife for a second time.

An Australian working for a journal based in Asia, accompanied me to a meeting in Peshawar with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He blew his cover when a report turned up in our diplomatic bag from one of our agencies reporting the meeting.

It was at a Russian Embassy reception that I learnt from an Indian RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent that General Zia had been blown up in his air force Hercules. RAW believed it was a group of middle ranking Pakistan army officers were responsible and they were right. My interlocuter, knowing of my relationship with Benazir, wanted that information conveyed to her, which I did.

Spying requires boots on the ground, getting down and dirty and first hand observation. People heading intelligence agencies with only screen and cyber experience don’t know the half of it. Others have claimed their leather seats by political brown nosing and cruising corridors. But more on that later.

Bruce Haigh

Is the Australian Government serious about restoring the relationship with China? There are disturbing indications that it is not.

At the National Press Club (NPC) on 26 August, the Minister at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, Wang Xining, delivered a cleverly crafted address containing a pathway to parlay after months of Morrison mudslinging at the Chinese Government following the LNP fear of catching the Corona virus.

The event was organised by China specialist and former diplomat Peter Phillips, who along with other retired Australian diplomats, is concerned at the ignorance and right wing ideology now governing our most important diplomatic relationship.

The embedded LNP media, known as the Main Stream Media (MSM), present at the NPC, either chose to ignore the invitation to parlay or it passed over their heads. 

The invitation was subtle but it was not obscure. Former DFAT colleagues, watching on TV or present at the NPC, picked it up.

Alan Behm formerly DAFAT and Defence and now head of international and security affairs at the Australia Institute, writing in The New Daily on 29 August, said Wang Xining’s speech was a clever, measured and thoughtful contribution to the conversation that Australia and China need to have. He outlined four principals that Wang set out to promote the partnership: respect, goodwill, fairness and vision and noted he offered the good offices of his embassy ‘in getting Ministers talking to each other.’

Right wing MSM journalists managed to miss all of this, instead running the LNP/Murdoch China bashing line. Chris Uhlmann, Channel 9, claimed Trade Minister Birmingham had made approaches to the Chinese seeking dialogue.

I contacted Birmingham’s office seeking details of these alleged approaches. The Ministers Senior Media Adviser, Benn Ayre, responded by email saying, “The Minister said late last week: ‘There have been at least half a dozen requests for ministerial conversations since late April, including a request I made in writing as recently as last week.’ “

I did not find this advice enlightening so I responded, ‘Thanks Benn. Who were the requests made to? Who was written to? All the best, Bruce.’

His reply, ‘Requests for meetings with Commerce Minister Zhong Shan. These have been either direct correspondence or requests through our embassy in Beijing or their embassy.’

To which I asked, ‘When were the approaches to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra? Written or verbal? At what level? Were they formally acknowledged? Who made them? The Ministers office or DFAT?

And his response, ‘Sorry Bruce, but we are not going to go into that level of detail. Cheers, Benn.’

That made no sense to me. During the course of a 23 year career in DFAT, which involved briefing Ministers and Ministerial advisers, I cannot recall the provision of such simple and straight forward information not being provided under the circumstances prevailing in this matter.

I went back, ‘Thanks Benn, but surely you need to establish the veracity of your claims. Otherwise they remain hearsay. When I was in DFAT it was par for the course to back up claims by the Minister in matters such as this. In those days the MSM was tougher and more professional in pursuing ministerial statements.

What is being said here is trust us. As you will appreciate the stakes are high and ‘trust us’ under the circumstances does not cut the mustard.

The Chinese Minister, Wang Xining, says as far as he is aware no approach has been made to the Chinses Embassy in Canberra, to facilitate Ministerial contact. My reading of his statement was that he was offering to facilitate an approach.

So who is dissembling, Wang Xining or Simon Birmingham? This is a very serious matter in terms of the bilateral relationship. Would you like to reconsider your advice? All the best,  Bruce.’

I heard nothing further so I rang him but no further details were forthcoming.

Under the circumstances I have concluded that Birmingham’s office is not telling the truth. Birmingham has made no approaches and why?

Birmingham is not the brightest or strongest person on the front bench. Who might have lent on him and why?

Could it be that those dictating Australian policy toward China do not want a rapprochement? Who are they? DFAT is seen by right wing think tanks and consultants as weak on China. It is weak but not just on China. Payne is one of the most insipid Foreign Ministers Australia has had for some time, morally and intellectually. Probably not since Tony Street have we witnessed such a poor performer in that role.

The finger of suspicion must fall on the right wing Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which has been rabid in its contrived public attacks on China. But ASIO, ASIS and Border Force must share responsibility, locked as they are, into Trumps visionless future for the region and anti-China posturing.

Grasp this. As Trade Minister, Birmingham, appears not to be making any move to restore the trading relationship with China and this may be because the right wing, both in Parliament and through the likes of ASPI do not want him to, and may in have applied pressure for him not to do so. If Australian right-wing organisations believe they can punish China they are delusional.

They might like to explain their thinking to the National Farmers Federation, wine, beef and barley producers. Such thinking, if it is abroad, would be totally at odds with the national interest. It would represent a self indulgent and destructive Canberra power play, with billions of trade dollars at stake.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and former Diplomat.

The military in Australia has played a key role in the national narrative. Its achievements have been woven into myth. External threat has long been part of the political fabric. The ADF and para-military organisations are seen as protectors of the political class and enjoy protected status as a result. As security organisations proliferate, the military move toward centre stage. Climate change and Covid19 consolidate their social and political position.

The foundation of Australia was a military exercise. Around 200 British Marines supervised 754 convict men, women and children in the colony of Sydney from 1788. The Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, was replaced by Major Francis Grose who turned the colony into a military dictatorship. Officers traded in rum and were awarded large tracts of land.

From 1788 until 1870, twenty-four British Regiments served in Australia under military Governors. From 1870 the colonies took responsibility for their own defence until Federation. These forces established the tradition of going to the aid of England, even when we were not needed. Men from the colonies volunteered to fight in New Zealand, the Sudan, South Africa and China between 1861 and 1902.

Not only did the military shoot enemies of England they also shot the original inhabitants, the Aboriginals, who they forced off the land. In this they were assisted by police and white settlers. From 1788 until 1920 it is estimated that over 200,000 were massacred.

Convinced war was coming the British sent military reformer Lord Haldane to Australia in 1911. He recommended compulsory military training and the introduction of school cadets. On the outbreak of war in 1914, 20,000 young Australian’s joined the army. Out of a population of 5 million, 416,000 signed up, of whom 330,000 served overseas. We did not need to be there.

The Australian war correspondent, CEW Bean, was appointed official historian. He wrote dispassionately of the horror and put order where there was none. His was a boy’s own history, preparing the next generation for war. He advocated for a war memorial in Canberra which in design and display prepared the ground for the deification of Australian involvement in war. Bean was the father of the Anzac legend, which is fascist and racist in manifestation. Where you and I might have seen crude and foul-mouthed grafters, Bean saw beautiful boys. He loved them. I have been in the army; I have seen a different reality.

The 25 April, the day Australian troops went ashore at Gallipoli, was designated a national day of remembrance, attracting big crowds between the wars. By the end WWII it was an even bigger event with dawn services and marches through cities and towns by ex-servicemen.

WWII saw the militarisation of Australia. Out of a population of 7.3 million in 1944 Australia had 1 million people in uniform. There were 730,000 in the army, 400,000 served overseas. Australia made uniforms, small arms, artillery, tanks, planes, naval and supply vessels.

All things military had sunk into the Australian psyche by 1945. But not all embraced Anzac Day. Some saw it as showy and shallow, having little to do with remembering loved ones and friends, accompanied as it was with false bonhomie. Many knew all too well of the violence and nastiness that lay beneath the surface on the Day once alcohol had a grip, wives, children and girlfriends better than most.

From 1950-1953, 17,000 Australian troops fought against the Chinese in an American dominated UN force in Korea. Prime Minister Robert Menzies took the country to war in Vietnam. He accepted the Domino theory. He believed that Chinese backed Communism was on a southward march through Vietnam. He gave secret undertakings to the Americans that Australia would support them.

Knowing he was going to fight in Vietnam he introduced legislation to conscript 20 year old Australians. Once the bill had passed through parliament Menzies announced that conscripts would fight in Vietnam. It was an act of treachery. Vietnam led to a vocal and determined anti-war movement. Australia withdrew in 1972 following the election of Gough Whitlam. Anzac Day and the jingoistic response to war that went with it was discredited; it sank into disrepute until Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited Gallipoli in 1990 and by so doing revived Anzac Day.

Hawke and Kim Beazley, as Minister for Defence, embarked on substantial defence spending linked to a new assertive forward defence policy. Beazley’s background was one of Moral Rearmament, his transition to war lord should be seen in terms of his intellectual and emotional capture by the US military establishment.

However, it was John Howard who unashamedly used Anzac Day, the uniform and flag to underpin his prime ministership. After 9/11 Howard committed Australian troops to war in Afghanistan and then illegally to war in Iraq. It suited Howard. He maximised photo opportunities, attending dock side departures, returns and funerals. Uniforms became part of his entourage. He was fascinated and intimidated by them and used them shamelessly.

His so-called war on terror enabled the militarisation of Australia to proceed apace and a frame work was established to accommodate a future police state. From 2001, 82 terrorism laws were enacted. By contrast, the police state of Apartheid South Africa had 9 laws relating to terrorism.

In 2000 Howard had the parliament pass the Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to Civilian Authorities) Act. It gave the Federal Government the power to call out the armed forces on domestic soil against perceived threats to ‘Commonwealth interests.’ If deemed necessary the ADF may shoot to kill. That is a first for Australia and it is a most dangerous piece of legislation to have on the books.

The Labor Party, under Beazley, did not oppose the Bill. The Act states that ‘the Governor-General is to act with the advice of Executive Council or in an emergency, the authorising Minister.’ Probably why military men are favoured as Governors-General – they are more likely to comply with a request to turn out the troops.

Howard’s reluctant but successful intervention in East Timor under General Cosgrove in 1999 enhanced his reputation as a war time leader and furthered the militarisation of Australia. He cunningly twisted the narrative to ensure that any attack on him by was an attack on ADF personnel.

Because the debate on national security was centred around the war on terror, questions on policy were cast as disloyal. The Labor Party have been unwilling to challenge that narrative and as a result cannot lay a glove on the LNP in relation to security and defence issues. More often than not, in order to demonstrate their patriotism, they have gone along with poor measures and legislation proposed by the LNP.

Patriotism and loyalty have become bound into the outdated Anzac myth, the prosecution and celebration of it now often referred to as Anzacery. It celebrates a white anglo narrative and has no relevance or understanding amongst newer ethnic groups. It has been captured by the political right.

The ADF enjoys iconic status. It has been woven into the Anzac myth and is portrayed as a protector and nurturer of the Anzac spirit. It is protected, it can do no wrong. The AFP raided the ABC to silence critics. It has been inserted into the social and civilian fabric through disaster deployment.

The four year celebration from 2014 to 2018, of Australian participation in WWI, cost $600m plus $200m for Abbott’s museum at Villers Bretonneux, plus another $500m to ‘upgrade’ the themed War Memorial in Canberra.

Funds for militarisation and securitisation appear unlimited and expenditure is beyond parliamentary scrutiny. In 2006 Howard authorised paramilitary training for the Australian Federal Police (AFP), that training presumably continues. It can be assumed that elements of the Australian Border Force (ABF) also receive paramilitary training. The ABF came into existence in 2015. One quarter of its members are armed. They have intimidating black uniforms and their own system of awards giving them the appearance of a para military force.

The Department of Home Affairs was established in 2017. It has oversight of the AFP, ASIO, ABF, ACIC and Austrac. There are more intelligence agencies including ONI, ASIS, DIO, ASD and AGO. Then there is the AIC, NIC, NSC, NICC, NICMC, NIOSC and ANZCTC. Yes, it is a cat’s breakfast and may well lead to the sort of problems that caused a breakdown in intelligence exchange in the US prior to 9/11.

The proliferation of agencies highlights the growth of the terrorism industry, reflected in the empire building noted above. The industry has now shifted its focus to China, which offers prospects for growth in unearthing evil intent.

Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs, has a powerful base for exercising and seeking to exercise control over his fellow Australians. Left to his own devices he would tap our phones and monitor our devices. Sally McManus of the ACTU believes he already does. I now have the same attitude to my phone in Australia as I did in South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Parliamentary scrutiny of this basket of cats is almost non-existent, due to a lack of will and an attitude that it would be disloyal to dig up dirt. The official mindset, accepted by the mainstream media, is that these are national institutions undertaking vitally important work on behalf of a nation under threat.

Patriotism is defined by the ruling LNP and supported by the Labor Party. China has now been identified as the enemy. It is best to go along with that narrative lest your home is raided, travel restricted and phone tapped. The Anzac myth is deployed in these times as an appeal to a higher order of nationalism requiring sacrifice of some liberties and compliance with unpopular directives. Its greatest appeal is on the right of the political spectrum. It has reached its use by date but nothing else is on offer.